The Weirdness of Emergent Behaviors

Whooping Crane in flight in Texas. USDA Photo by John Noll.

While listening to the February 17th episode of This Week in Science podcast, I learned that the whooping crane, Grus americana, which has been on the brink of extinction, was recently reintroduced to the wild in Louisiana, though their original habitat has changed. The birds are responding to this change, and thriving, by altering their appetite to include small reptiles and amphibians. Though their natural history isn’t entirely understood, it’s generally agreed that this is new behavior; it’s behavior that emerged after their habitat changed.

Or consider our cat Rosemary (gone but still in our hearts). She was a normal cat with no particular strange behaviors, until we acquired some small stuffed dragons, which she began to pick up in her mouth and carry around our house. She wasn’t nesting with them, because she didn’t gather them up in one single place; rather, she deposited them in random locations, upstairs and down, and sometimes on the stairs themselves. So this I’m also considering an “emergent behavior”, that is, an unexpected new behavior that emerges after a change in environment.

I suppose this isn’t technically emergent behavior, though. The term, I believe, actually comes from complexity theory and refers to a system which exhibits traits and behaviors that cannot necessarily be explained in terms of the parts. A single neuron, for example, is not at all capable of the higher thought processes that a brain, composed of millions of neurons, is capable of. Similarly, an individual ant is not capable of doing very much, but organize thousands of them into a colony and you get some very complex behaviors indeed (Douglas Hofstader, in his book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, even imagined that an ant colony that was capable of rational thought).

This post isn’t meant to be scientific or a reflection of any philosophical notions, just some random thoughts that I’ve pondered throughout the years. The basic point is that emergent behaviors and properties are weird. When an organism’s or individual’s habitat or environment changes in a truly novel way, you can’t necessarily predict what the response will be. Similarly, with complex systems, you can’t necessarily predict what strange properties will show up.

That’s all I got for now. Again, my next post will probably be about our cat Nutmeg, who, because she’s kind of chubby, I’ve taken to calling “Miss Chumbly-Wumbly”. Sure it makes no sense. But neither does this post.


Image credit: NASA

The other day, I got to thinking about singularities, as one does. Not the so-called technological or sociological singularity of Ray Kurzweil et al (which I think is just kind of silly), but the singularities that lie at the heart of the Big Bang and black holes. Mind you, the two singularities are not the same — the universe is not a black hole, and black holes are not little Big Bangs — but the basic concept, as I understand it, is essentially the same. A singularity is a construct of mathematics and physics and represents a region where we the laws of physics and mathematics simply break down. We simply can’t describe what happens at the heart of a singularity because our mathematics and our physics aren’t capable of doing so. There’s some philosophical debate as to whether the science has advanced sufficiently to a point where we can know what’s happening or we’ll never know because the mathematics will be forever beyond our ken. The point is, right we just don’t know what happens in a singularity, and we don’t even know if we ever will know.

So, it’s been established (more or less) that there are some questions we may simply never have the answers to. What happens inside a black hole? We don’t know. What happened in the first moment of the Big Bang? We don’t know. Can we determine both the precise location and velocity of a sub-atomic particle? No we can’t.

All this thinking about unanswerable questions made me dizzy while I was studying philosophy at UC Davis, and I loved it. And then I got to thinking about the limits of the human intellectual enterprise as a whole. Could it be that, in addition to questions we can’t answer, are there questions we can’t even ask?

Consider a housecat observing a human reading a book. To the human, reading a book means hallucinating vividly while staring at black marks on the remains of a dead, pulped-up tree. But what does it mean to the cat? Even the smartest of cats — such as our cat Rupert — wouldn’t know what to make of this. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the cat  lacks the capacity to even ask what the human is doing. It doesn’t occur to the cat to question it, because the cat doesn’t understand the first thing about written communication, and the concept doesn’t even exist in the cat’s mind.

So what about the limits of human comprehension? Like the housecat, we’re obviously limited in what we can comprehend and understand. Do these limits mean that we can’t ask certain questions because we’ll never know where to look?

I once asked this question of one of my philosophy professors at UC Davis. Dr. A– simply replied, “What would be the point? Get back to your paper on Descartes.”

And, of course, I can’t provide any examples of questions that can’t be asked, because, by definition, if a question can be asked then it isn’t non-askable.

Finally, if a question is non-askable, does that mean there are vast swaths of knowledge that we simply can’t ever know? I didn’t study much epistemology in college, so I never really came across this question.

So to me, this little bit of questioning suggests a sort of singularity of human thought. Just as we’ll likely never know what happens inside the singularity of a black hole or what happened before the Big Bang, we may never know the limits of our own knowledge, simply because we can’t ask the relevant questions.

That’s all I got for now. My next blog post will be different, likely about our cat Rupert, the wicked smart cat, or Sherman, who attempts to escape our house every time the front door opens. But for now, this philosophical meandering is what you get.

Writing Goals for 2016

Well, now that January is more than halfway over with, I suppose it’s time to come up with some goals for the new year, isn’t it? So. Here are some of my own goals for the new year:

  1. I entered a “death pact” with a few friends. This pact is to write a short story a month for the entire year. My January story, “Flash Drive”, is mostly complete except for revising according to feedback, although it is sort of a cheat; I started it a few months ago as part of my “Story of the Week” project. My February story is also going to be a cheat of sorts: it will be a final revision of “Burying Uncle Albert”, which needs quite a bit of work. Someday, I swear, that story will be finished.
  2. FINALLY put together and put up for sale the hard copy of “The Winds of Patwin County”. People have been asking for this. My goal is to have this up and ready on by May.
  3. And speaking of Patwin County, I plan to have another ebook, Tales from Patwin County, ready for sale soon. This collection will contain “Just Like This”, “Burying Uncle Albert”, and a couple of others which I haven’t decided on yet.
  4. I also hope to have the first draft of Padma done by the end of this year. I’ve already committed to submitting the first half of the first draft to my critique group by June, so… tick tock, I suppose.
  5. I also plan on writing some actual non-fiction articles this year, probably science-related.
  6. Of course, I’d also like to sell some more fiction this year. “The Hunt”, which was published in The Literary Hatchet in August (see my Bibliography page for more information), was my first sale since 2011; I don’t want another four-year gap between publications. But I can’t really make “sell more stories” a goal, since I personally don’t have a lot of control over whether a story sells or not. But I can control whether or not I submit stories, so I certainly plan on submitting more. I want to have five active submissions at all times. That’s a tough goal, but I think I can do it. I’ve done it before, but not over the span of a full year. The Submissions Grinder over at Diabolical Plots will, hopefully, help me keep on track.

That’s it. Six goals. That should be enough to keep me busy all this year. If you’re a fellow writer, and you actually read this entry, feel free to post a comment with your own goals.

Happy new year!

The Tale of the Lonely Spider

Nerd Tree(Click to embiggen this picture. It’s huge.)

We haven’t yet gotten around to decorating our house for Christmas. We were going to do that yesterday (as well as cooking a bunch of food to stock our freezer and so on), but Jennifer got sidelined by a 7-hour conference call for work, so we didn’t get any of that done. So she did that, and I worked on the Holidailies site.

We did put up our Christmas tree a couple of weeks ago. Again, we haven’t had a chance to decorate it, but a day or so after we put it up, we did put on that giant spider that you see in the upper left, assuming that Sherman would knock it down at some point. So far he hasn’t. Then, because the spider was lonely, on Saturday I added the plush Cthulhu, which is a traditional Christmas decoration in our home (actually, Cthulhu lives on top of the grandmother clock in our hallway during the year, but in the tree during Christmas time). And yesterday Jennifer added the Dalek. So is our tree sufficiently decorated? You tell me.

In other news, I have decided that there is far too much negativity and downright nastiness in my life, mostly in the social media aspect of it. So I have promised myself not to be nasty, sarcastic, or mean on Twitter or Facebook. This certainly does include my political posts, and there’s a lot going on in politics right now that has been making me angry. The trick, I think, is to express that anger in a way that isn’t sarcastic or mean. Or, better yet, to channel that anger in a positive way. Saying that one group or another sucks might be cathartic but it’s hardly constructive.

It’s a precarious balance, and since I made that promise to myself, I haven’t actually posted either on Facebook or Twitter. I am sure I’ll post though. I go through phases anyway.

Now, this may be my only post for Holidailies. Enjoy it while you can.

A Death in November

So. Back in 2005, when National Novel Writing Month rolled around in November, I wrote Fred Again, a novel about a police detective and a young woman facing Lovecraftian forces beyond their control, and winning. Sort of. There was a lot going on in that novel.

The title Fred Again didn’t come from me, though. It came from my friend Nicole. You see, I announced in October that I had no idea what I was going to write, so I simply solicited titles from my friends on the Internet, and decided that with that title, I’d simply sit down at midnight on November 1 to see what came out. As a reward for suggesting a winning title, I said, I’d kill the friend off in the manner of their choosing in the novel. I got so many great title ideas that I decided to use them as chapter titles, meaning that each chapter featured a gruesome death scene featuring my friends. It was a blast to write, and, by all accounts, a blast to read. And the really neat thing is that Fred Again sort of set me on a new path in my writing. Up until then I’d been writing straight horror or science fiction, and not enjoying it too much. With Fred Again I made the switch to comic horror, and my writing has been a lot more fun since then.

It’s been ten years since then, and once again I have no idea what I’m going to write for National Novel Writing Month. Actually, that’s not entirely true; I had an idea, but it requires planning and outlining and what not, which, at this point, I just don’t have time for. So I’m going to do what I did in 2005: sit down at midnight on November 1 and start writing and see what happens.

Of course I have no idea what the title of the novel will be, nor what the chapter titles might be, so once again I’m soliciting ideas.

So: Got a novel/chapter title suggestion for me? Post it in the comments on this blog post, reply to me on Twitter, or post a comment in Facebook. As a thank you, I will happily write you into my novel and kill you off in the manner of your choosing.

Suggest away!

Ways to Spend Money, Redux

Hm, I’m noticing that it’s been awhile since I’ve posted here to my blog. It’s nobody’s fault, in particular, I’ve just been busy. And when I haven’t been busy, I’ve been… well, busy. Busy busy busy. I took a class in advanced PHP/SQL and that took up a LOT of time. And now that the class is over, I’m working on finishing up the final project for that class: basically, I’m rebooting Holidailies, a blogging community which has been running pretty much consistently for over ten years.

Between that and other projects, I’ve had very little time for writing or for blogging. This is weighing upon my soul.

For now, though, I’m soothing my aching heart by writing this quick blog entry during my lunch break at work. I want to offer you a couple of different ways to spend money, which I know is something you really want to do.

First, you could donate to National Novel Writing Month’s Young Writers Program through the nano_15_wat_poster_online_imagefundraiser that Jennifer and I are running. It’s called The Night of Writing Dangerously, and we’ve participated before.  The Young Writers Program is a fantastic way to encourage children up to age 17 to stretch and flex their creative energies by writing novels or stories themselves. I know several children who have participated, and their creativity is awesome. This is highly recommended.

And, of course, I’d like to encourage you to spend $2.99 and purchase the Kindle edition of my novella, The Winds of Patwin County. This little story has gathered some great reviews, and I’mThe Winds of Patwin County Cover particularly proud of it. Now, I know that not everyone has a Kindle or a Kindle app on their smart phone or tablet, so I am preparing a paperback edition that will hopefully be up for sale on Amazon soon. But, again, this is one of those projects that have been put on hold while I focus on Holidailies.

This novella comes with a content warning, though, and I should stress that it is definitely not safe for children. When they make the movie version, it will definitely be rated R. So if you want to do something that’s safe for kids, then, once again, I recommend donated to our fundraiser.

That’s it. Soon, I will have more to say. I promise that this blog won’t languish for too long before my next post.

About that writing thing

dragonreadingThis past weekend I participated in an online intensive short story workshop taught by Mary Robinette Kowal, who’s written some of my favorite stories (including “Lady Astronaut of Mars“, which is a beautiful story and you really ought to read if you haven’t already). It was amazingly educational — I took pages and pages of notes — and very inspiring. I used to participate in the writers’ workshops at various science fiction conventions, but I haven’t done that in awhile; I ended up getting nothing but positive comments, and while that was certainly good for my ego, I felt like I wasn’t actually learning anything. In this workshop, I learned to recognize two of my major flaws as a writer:

  1. Character motivation. Some of my characters lack consistent internal motivations for their actions, and this is definitely something I need to work on in order to develop as a writer. The other flaw is this:
  2. Tone consistency. The story I wrote for the class started out as a horror story, but ended up as a buddy comedy. This was not my intention; I had always meant it to be comic, but the opening scene with the main character was just too dark.  I have the opposite problem with another story I’ve been working on for years, “Burying Uncle Albert”. I have ideas on how to fix this.

So there’s that. The workshop was intense; Saturday’s session was twelve hours long, and Sunday’s was fourteen. And during each break, we would have homework: write something, then critique two other students’ output. We didn’t have any more than an hour at any point during the course of the workshop when we weren’t learning.

I highly recommend this workshop to you the next time she offers it.

In other news, I’ve decided on a fiduciary goal with regards to my writing: by the age of 50, I want to be earning enough with my writing to be able to cut back on my hours at work without loss of income. I think it’s a doable goal, but it’s going to require some hard work on my part.

I can do it, though. I’m sure of it.

Of course, I’d love to write full-time someday, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. Maybe when I retire.